Privileged accounts are associated with many cyber security risks and threats, making Privileged Access Management PAM solutions significant for the entire IT system of a business. We talked to some of the vendors involved in PAM and our analysts holding expertise in the domain about the risks and challenges associated with Privileged accounts and how important role the management of such accesses plays in an enterprise along with many other aspects.
Read this week’s Tech Reads blog on the market outlook of PAM – part one. It talks about the risks posed by privileged accounts and the importance of PAM solutions. Expect much more in the next part.
Privilege, in the IT context, can be described as the authority given to an account within the computer system of an enterprise. The authority to access, override or bypass some security restraints, to perform certain actions such as shutting down the system, loading driver data, configuring the system network, accounts, and the cloud, etc. So, in laymen’s terms “privileged access” is special access granted to someone, giving them abilities beyond that given to a standard user.
Businesses grant this access only to some individuals to keep business data and its IT assets secure and to run the business smoothly and efficiently. Protecting the confidentiality of sensitive business data is a priority for the business.
We talked to some of the vendors involved in PAM solutions and our analysts holding expertise in the domain about the risks and challenges associated with Privileged accounts and how important role the management of these privileged accesses play in an enterprise along with many other aspects associated with PAM. This blog reflects their input and our research on the subject. We dive into the field of Privileged Access Management (PAM) to see what role it plays for enterprises and highlight some of the best practices for a business utilizing PAM.
So, what are privileged accounts, and why are they risky?
To manage security, every organization gives different levels of role-based access to the users depending on their usage. Such a role-based security model grants greater controls and access only to some specific users/administrators since actions like accessing information, reconfiguration of applications, etc. have wide operational and security consequences. Accounts with such privileged access are called Privileged accounts. Some of the examples include administrator accounts, domain service accounts, Emergency, applications, network equipment, or firewall accounts. These accounts must be dealt with observing utmost care because they pose a greater risk to the security of the organization’s privileged data, should they fall into wrong hands.
As David Muniz, Knowledge Management Analyst at Senhasegura points out, Privileged accounts are one of the favorite targets for malicious attackers performing their activities. Studies suggest that almost half of the data breaches have taken place through privileged accounts. Not to mention the high costs associated with data breaches involving privileged accounts. He also says that they are called “keys to the kingdom” as those credentials allow critical actions such as modifying the settings of a computer or even transferring financial resources from the organization’s accounts. Many other vendors interviewed seem to confirm this fact.
Hence, there are various kinds of security risks and threats associated with privileged accounts. Let’s see what these potential threats and challenges that make privileged accounts risky and vulnerable.
1. Management of privileged access
Proper and efficient management of privileged access is a big challenge for most enterprises. One of the important aspects of it is managing account credentials. Manual administrative processes that many IT shops use for rotating and updating privileged credentials prove to be inefficient and expensive. Moreover, monitoring and tracking of privileged activities from a central location is also a challenge for many organizations, making them vulnerable to cybersecurity threats and compliance violations. Many companies also struggle to control privileged user access to cloud platforms and applications which creates complexity in the system and compliance risks as the system data is accessible without proper control.
2. Third parties
There are many third parties such as vendors, experts, consultants, etc. associated with a business. These parties need temporary privileged access to the resources and are granted the same by the company. However, not tracking and managing this access after their need is fulfilled could expose the business to the risks of data breaches. Referring to a study from Ponemon Institute, David said that 66 percent of the surveyed companies had no awareness of how many third-party relationships they had or how they were managed. According to the same study, 61 percent of the surveyed companies reported having a breach associated with a third party. This suggests the gravity of risks posed by third-party privileged access accounts.
3. Privilege abuse
Another factor exposing privileged accounts to risks and threats is privilege abuse. When organizations grant more privileges to a user than necessary. The reason could be a lack of awareness of what permissions to grant to whom or not caring much about it. It could lead to privilege abuse by active or former employees to carry out malicious activities, data breaches, or some other harm to the company’s sensitive data and resources.
4. Insider threats
Sometimes, threats come from inside the company. A ‘Zero Trust Security’ policy, which is based on the principle of ‘Trust No one Verify Everyone’, protects the business and its sensitive IT assets from outside threats, but sometimes employees themselves could be the risk as they are granted privileged access depending on their role and usage needs..
5. Other Risks
There are many other risks and challenges businesses face when it comes to privileged accounts. Stolen credentials, balancing between security and ease of use, threats posed by less secure network connections in the remote working setups, and IT systems becoming vulnerable to cyber warfare as happened during the Russian-Ukraine war 2022 are some of the examples.
These risks can be attributed to unnecessary privileges granted to a single user or admins trying to simply network access by creating a single account within the organizations with multiply users for all operations and applications. The risk factors and challenges suggest that strategic management and security of such privileged accounts is of paramount importance for an enterprise.
Comes into Picture Privileged Access Management (PAM), which is a collection of cybersecurity strategies and technologies utilized by companies to manage and control privileged accesses for users, accounts, and processes across the entire IT ecosystem of the business. Accelerated Digital transformation directly contributes to the rising need for all kinds of cybersecurity solutions including PAM. Now let’s see how beneficial PAM solutions are for a business and its security.
Why is PAM important for the business?
The significance of PAM solutions for organizations lies in reducing its attack surface, and mitigating/preventing the damage occurring from external attacks as well as from insider delinquency or malfeasance. As pointed out by Vera De Chauvigny, Product Marketing Executive at Wallix Group, along with some other PAM vendors, the scope of privileged users is increasing, and so is the need to ensure that the risk is kept to a minimum. Identity is hence the new security perimeter and PAM is its cornerstone.
From discussions with our analysts and clients on how beneficial the role of PAM for organizations is in strengthening their cybersecurity ecosystem, we have identified the following to be the most critical benefits offered by PAM solutions.
- Minimizing the organization’s attack surface
First, and perhaps the most important benefit of PAM is that it minimizes the organization’s cyberattack surface by appropriately granting privileges to necessary users based on their roles and applications. This eliminates most points from where attackers can hack the system/accounts and leave limited scope for damages in case a breach occurs.
- Strong and effective user access control framework
PAM establishes a strong and effective framework for access control in the organization. This is made possible by ensuring controlled privilege access to the right users for executing their tasks. It ensures central management of privileged accounts along with shared and emergency access accounts by the admins so that users can access the accounts using single sign-on integration without having to remember multiple passwords. Such an effective framework in the system leads to greater productivity along with increased security.
Apart from this, the PAM solution solves security weaknesses arising from multiple users having privileged access and from long-standing static passwords that admins don’t change because of the fear of it causing any unwanted disturbance.
- Prevention of lateral movement from attackers
In case the system encounters any cyberattacks, PAM averts any further damage. According to the tech vendors in the PAM market space, these tools prevent lateral movement from attackers to spread across the environment and cause more damage which results in reduced downtime and damage in case of a cyberattack, like loss of revenue and confidence from customers, suppliers, and employees. In addition to that, it also prevents the use of breached or stolen passwords by defending the IT system from the damages that may occur because of it.
- Increased Traceability and Visibility
As expressed by David, ‘It is impossible to protect what is not managed, and it is not possible to manage what is unknown.’ In light of this, increased traceability of actions and full visibility of credentials and devices are one of the most critical benefits offered by PAM solutions by ensuring that nothing is unknown in the processes.
The tools discover all the privileged accounts on the system and applications for subsequent management. It automatically manages and vaults passwords and other administrative credentials. It also traces all the privileged actions performed by the users to their origin, which helps in detecting, investing, and responding to cyberattacks. Such improved visibility and traceability in the system offer greater maturity in the PAM processes and in overcoming the challenges associated with compliance.
- Simplified Auditing and Compliance
PAM also offers monitoring capabilities along with visibility in the system. It isolates, monitors, records, and audits all the privileged access user actions (including employees and third-party users) which help in responding to problems in real time.
This also helps the business overcome challenges associated with regulatory controls and compliance with cybersecurity standards such as PCI-DSS, NIST, ISO 27001, & laws such as GDPR, HIPAA, and LGPD. As mentioned by Vera, ‘The core capabilities of the selected PAM providers, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), session management, password management, and remote access management are a must to ensure the tool meets the necessary audit and compliance requirements.’ With such offerings, a comprehensive PAM solution simplifies auditing and compliance for the business.
- Security in hybrid and cloud environments
Lastly, PAM also secures hybrid remote access in the cloud-centric environment. This benefit is especially important in times when remote and hybrid work models are now the new normal. Software as a Service (SaaS) applications are becoming more adaptive. It also implies an increased number of privileged accounts, requiring companies to invest in something more intricate than just VPN to secure privileged access to cloud and hybrid environments, making PAM a perfect solution for their needs.
In addition to these, PAM also provides other benefits such as enabling an identity-centric Zero Trust principle for just-in-time access. Sachin Birajdar, Analyst at Quadrant Knowledge Solutions, explains that the solutions are helping organizations to control, manage, automate, monitor, as well as protect privileged access and accounts to avoid security breaches and minimize risks. PAM solution providers are focusing on providing comprehensive features, including live session monitoring, and recording, comprehensive reporting, real-time notifications, multifactor authentication, role-based access controls, privileged session management, privileged password management, and others, to keep up with the market.
All of it strongly points toward how crucial the role of PAM is for an organization to keep its privileged accounts secure and in compliance, and how the vendors are evolving to deliver advanced capabilities to the end-users.
What lies ahead…
The dive of interest into the world of Privileged Access Management does not end here. This comprehensive research-based blog on PAM by Quadrant Knowledge Solutions has more in its scope. We also cover some of the best practices for businesses adopting PAM in their workings and trends driving market adoption of PAM. Look forward to reading about it in the next part of this blog coming soon.
Vaishnavi Dave is a Content Writer at Quadrant Knowledge Solutions